By Maggie Hall
Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, and a member of Humanists UK, Humanists International and the Humanists UK Dialogue Network. She is also a Humanists UK School Speaker. In this article, she explains why 'boomers' shouldn't necessarily be envied by young adults unable to get onto the housing ladder.
'My parents lived their whole lives in rented accommodation and had nothing to pass on to me when they died.'
There's no doubt that there is a housing crisis in Britain at the moment. Over recent decades, the rise in house prices has significantly outpaced the increase in real wages. As a result, young adults today face a much greater challenge in achieving their goal of home ownership than in the past. Not only that, but those who are forced to rent are faced with inflated rent payments. Young families are, of course, badly impacted, but single people are often in a worse predicament. If a family with two full-time salaries cannot afford a deposit on a house what chance does a single person earning a modest salary in the public sector have? My son is in this position. He could probably afford mortgage repayments as easily as his current rent, but raising the enormous deposit that he would need for even a modest flat is out of the question.
However, sympathetic though I am with this unfortunate generation, I do get very fed up with being blamed for their situation. As a post-war 'baby boomer', I fall into the generation commonly accused of being uncaring and selfish, sitting in our paid-off mortgage-free homes, having inherited money and/or property from our own parents who gained them in some far-off golden era when everyone was far wealthier and you could buy a house with your piggy bank savings. In view of this I wondered if perhaps they would like to know what life has been like for this baby boomer.
I was born into a poor family in post-war London. There was still an air-raid shelter at the top of our street and a pig bin at the bottom of it, where people would deposit their food scraps to be fed to pigs because food, even for animals, was in short supply.
My dad kept rabbits, which were killed now and then for food. Other people kept chickens for the same purpose, and for eggs. Many foods and clothing were still rationed. There was poverty, there was inequality, there was racial prejudice on a much larger scale than there is now. All homosexual acts by men were illegal and punishable by imprisonment or even chemical castration. We still had the death penalty. Women were at the back of the queue for jobs, and were paid less than men for the same work. Abortion was also illegal, and many young girls and women died at the hands of back street abortionists. There was no pre-school education or child care to speak of. My primary school still had open coke fires and gas lighting. The caretaker would come round in the afternoon to light the ceiling lights with a light on a long pole.
No one in my street owned their own house – it was something only rich people could do. My family occupied the ground floor of a three-storey house, with other families living on the other two floors. There was only one bedroom, which I shared with my parents until I was fourteen. My brother had to sleep on a fold-down couch/bed in the front room until he was twenty-two. We had no central heating, no bathroom and no running hot water – just one cold tap in the kitchen, or 'scullery' as we called it, which was the size of most modern bathrooms, with a toilet leading directly off it. We did, at least, have an inside toilet, unlike many houses in the street which only had one outside. My parents lived their whole lives in rented accommodation and had nothing to pass on to me when they died.
My playground was the bomb site at the top of our street, where once several houses had stood before Hitler flattened them. There were many such stretches of waste ground all over London. Every now and then an unexploded bomb would be found. Many of these sites were actually turned into adventure playgrounds later on.
Nobody in my neighbourhood owned a fridge or a washing machine. If you were lucky enough to have a TV it was rented, tiny, black and white and there was only one channel. We didn’t have one until I was about nine.
Few people made it into higher education. Most working-class kids had to leave school at fifteen and start working to bring money into the house. I had to fight like anything to be allowed to stay on into the sixth form.
My grandparents lived right next to those bomb sites in a tiny Victorian cottage backing onto the railway line, also with no central heating or hot running water. The house shook every time a train went by. Their toilet was in the tiny backyard where they kept a vicious dog chained up. If I needed to use the loo I had to sidle past it, terrified, whilst it barked and snapped at me, straining at its chain. Eight children were brought up in that house, with my grandmother also working as a midwife for the princely sum of one shilling per birth. Working-class women have always had to work. My mother worked in catering or retail all her life. Those 1950s housewives you see in old magazine adverts would not have been my mother, my aunts or any of their friends. And they managed without any of those modern appliances cheerfully demonstrated by those deliriously happy ladies in bouffant petticoats and stiletto heels.
As part of the post-war redevelopment of London, my grandparents' cottage was eventually pulled down to make way for a new park. At the time, my grandmother was an elderly widow, and my uncle, who had been disabled by polio as a child and never married, lived with her. They were subsequently moved to one of the prefabricated one-storey dwellings, known as 'prefabs', that were brought in by the government as a temporary measure to help alleviate the post-war housing crisis. Those 'temporary' dwellings remained occupied for decades and some are still standing.
When I married my first husband we lived in a semi-basement flat owned by his employer. When the marriage fell apart after less than three years (a story for another time, perhaps) I had to go back to living with my parents, who by that time had been rehoused in a much nicer, but still rented council maisonette (a self-contained living space that is situated on two or more levels within a larger building). There was still no central heating, but at least there was hot water, a bathroom, and a kitchen big enough to put a small table in. My mother thought she had died and gone to heaven!
It was not until I married for the second time that my husband and I were finally able to apply for a Greater London Council mortgage and we managed to just about afford a tiny maisonette of our own. My husband’s parents were somewhat better off than mine and eventually we did inherit half a bungalow, selling our maisonette and buying my brother-in-law out of his half with the proceeds. We brought up three children there. Even with us both working full time money was still very tight. We were just getting to the stage when the children would be off our hands and we could start planning for retirement, when my husband suddenly died. The only reason I have any money or a house now is that he had already taken early severance pay from the Civil Service, which I inherited. I now find myself by no means rich but at least with a roof over my head and no debt. In other words, better off than I’ve ever been in my whole life, which is not really saying much.
Yes we 'boomers' might look better off from the point of view of Millennials and Generation Z, but what they cannot see is the painful and rocky path it took to get there. Of course, there are probably plenty of people in my age group who had more affluent beginnings and easier lives, but one thing I have learned from a fairly long sojourn on this Earth is that it never does to make assumptions about other people's lives. The past always looks better through rose-tinted spectacles. Especially when it’s someone else’s past.